Monday, November 25, 2013
Agency and program leaders depend on a range of mission support functions, such as finance, technology, acquisition, or workforce management, to get their jobs done. The delivery of these functions, however, have changed over the past quarter century.

Twenty-five years ago, federal agencies typically did not have key executives leading mission support functions. These functions were largely seen as administrative transaction services. However, ineffective mission support operations can be quite costly. For example in 2010, there were $641 million in grievance settlements at the Postal Service because of poor management training and inadequate labor-management relations. In another example, a study found that poorly trained contract officers in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to at least $30 billion in contract fraud and abuse. And as was widely reported in 2006, the lack of appropriate data security at the Department of Veterans Affairs led to the exposure of private information for more than 26 million veterans.


Congress Created Chiefs to Improve Management.  As a consequence of such persistent failures and a lack of clear leadership in mission support functions, Congress has intervened in the management of the executive branch over the past two decades by raising the profile, formalizing leadership roles, and defining more authority for many of these functions. Formalizing these roles mirrored similar trends in the private sector to create chief financial officers, chief information officers, chief acquisition officers, and chief human capital officers. Collectively, these “chiefs” have been referred to the as “C-Suite” and most recently, Congress formalized the role of chief operating officers and performance improvement officers as well.


Chiefs Wear Three Hats.  These various “chiefs” reflect different disciplines that have their own professional communities and ways of defining success. Generally, most of these “chiefs” report to the heads of their agencies and provide have at least three core functions

  • Providing services to internal agency customers (such as hiring or installing computers or providing office space)
  • Ensuring compliance with governmentwide requirements (such as merit principles or capital investment guidelines)
  • Providing strategic advice to agency leaders (such as strategic workforce planning or financial risk management)

Depending on the function, the chiefs will have different customers or stakeholders. For example, when providing “services,” a chief’s customer may be line managers and employees within his or her agency. When a chief focuses on his or her “compliance” role, the customers in this area may be the governmentwide Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or the Office of Personnel Management. If a chief acts as a “strategic advisor” their customer may be the agency head.

These functions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of the challenges for federal government chiefs is balancing these distinct functions.


Needed:  Stronger Mission Focus.  The increased prominence of internally focused mission-support functions has raised concerns among externally focused mission-oriented line managers in agencies. Mission managers deliver services to the public, such as air traffic control, environmental cleanup, export assistance, disability benefits, or immigration enforcement at the border. These mission managers rely on, but more importantly can capitalize on centrally directed mission-support functions, which is a trend found in the business sector. Having common services provided centrally is not only less expensive but often results in higher quality. However, one former mission manager recently noted that in his experience, “the [C-Suite] community is the biggest obstacle to success.”

For example, a 2009 study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) of several mission-support functions at the Department of Energy (DOE) observed that these centralized functions in the department are seen as dysfunctional by line managers, largely because the various functions do not coordinate with each other. The lack of coordination within and among these functions results in “an inwardly focused, regulation-based, transactional organization.”

The NAPA study concluded that “DOE needs to better integrate and manage the mission-support offices’ efforts in order to develop a coordinated approach to providing essential support services.” In addition, it found the mission support offices needed to develop a stronger mission focus: “DOE does not have formal systems to assess how well the mission-support offices are meeting the needs of the department and to hold them accountable for doing so.” Anecdotal evidence suggests similar perceptions by mission leaders in other federal departments as well.


Creating Governance Structures That Support Mission Leaders.  In addition to encouraging mission-support chiefs to focus greater attention on mission delivery, the NAPA study also recommended that the U.S. Department of Energy create cross-bureau governance structures.  This new structure would better coordinate mission-support activities by integrating them more effectively into mission delivery priorities.  These include creating:

  • An undersecretary for management
  • An operations management council
  • An enterprise-wide mission-support council

Moreover, Congress recently established another chief – the chief operating officer (or undersecretary for management). With this role now enshrined in law and possessing statutory authority, the COO serves as a nexus between policy and management.  Depending on the agency, this role may be held by the deputy secretary or filled by an undersecretary for management.

These recommended structures and new roles alone will not change tendencies found in mission support areas to act independently. Chiefs have to connect with one another through formal and informal means, and balance their three functional roles. The operations management council can serve as a way of addressing cross-functional business system issues. For example, the Defense Business Council is chaired by the U.S. Department of Defense’s deputy secretary and is comprised of the 19 key mission delivery and mission support leaders from across the department. They collectively develop the strategies for moving forward on the design and investment in key business systems for the department in ways that maximize the effectiveness of mission delivery in the field. At some points during the year, they meet as often as two to three times a week.


Opportunities for Cross-Functional Collaboration.  Both mission-support and mission-delivery executives say there are opportunities to improve results if they worked together more effectively as a team, both within and across agencies. One way to do this is have agency executives serve in both mission-support and mission-delivery roles as a part of their career development much like the commercial sector does. Government executives can develop a better understanding of enterprise-wide priorities that goes beyond just mission-level priorities. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is doing just this within its executive development program. And finally, we have the increased use of cross-departmental councils that regularly convene to tackle issues of integration. For example, we see this with the USDA’s Departmental Management Operations Council as well as the PerformanceStat meetings at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This cross-functional mission-support collaboration could also extend to cross-agency mission-delivery initiatives, as well. For example, agencies are now working across boundaries to solve major public challenges such as climate change and food safety. Mission-support services for these initiatives have previously been ad hoc. The cross-agency mission-support councils could support these initiatives in innovative ways that increase efficiency and accountability.

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Be sure to also read the other blog posts in our series on Six Trends Driving Change in Government: